Monday, October 18, 2010


The top 5% isn't that steep of a goal to attain.

How to Be at the Top 5% of the Slush Pile | submissions | writing tips | author advice

When you think about the hundreds of thousands of writers that are out there submitting things to editors, you have to wonder if yours is good enough to beat the competition. Well, if you act like a professional, then yes, it probably is good enough to beat the competition. The question at that point becomes, "How do I act like a professional writer?"

When I attended The Children's Writers' Bootcamp with Laura Backes and Linda Arms White last April, they said that it's not that hard to be considered at the top 5%. The main reason is because the other 95% are typically amateurs. Here's how to stand out as a professional:
  1. Perfect your craft - do writing push-ups.
  2. Be a smart marketer - do your research.
  3. Use perfect grammar, punctuation, and follow guidelines - don't make common mistakes.
Now, each of these could very well become its own article, but for today, I'll expound only briefly on each.

Perfect Your Craft. There are lots of ways to become a better writer.
  • Read, read, read.
  • Study books you love to read.
  • Study books you wish you had written.
  • Study books you think are similar to yours, but not too similar (you don't want to accidentally "plagiarize").
  • Read and study books about writing, about character, about plot, about anything you need or want to learn about that is writing related.
Smart Marketing. If you have a rhyming picture book, make sure you do your research. Don't send it to an editor that abhors rhyming texts. If you have a middle grade novel, then don't send it to a publisher that specializes in acting and theater. If you have a YA novel, then don't send it to a publisher specializing in teacher education. Make sure the publishers you select actually FIT with what you have written.
  • Study the market.
  • Know the genres.
  • Know your genre.
  • Know what different publishers' tastes are.
  • Read and study a Book Market. Own one. My favorite is the Book Markets for Children's Writers by Writer's Institute Publications.
  • Keep a journal of all the books you read. Include publication date, and publisher.
Avoid Common Mistakes. 
  • Use proper grammar and perfect punctuation. Proofread.
  • Follow editors' guidelines.
  • Address to the correct person and spell names correctly.
  • Write high quality cover letters, query letters, and manuscripts.
If we do these three basic things, we'll already be a cut above the competition. At that point it becomes more a matter of timing, opinion, and business. But above all else, you have to tell a good story. At least 8% of the time. Just kidding. ALL the time!


  1. Great advice. Nice to know it's that easy . . . as long as you write a book that others want to read. :)

  2. "Study books you wish you had written."
    Oh yes. I do this a lot (while trying not to drool over the pages at the same time...).

  3. Very true :) Definitely some great advice here!

  4. HOPE!
    and still expect loads of rejection :)

  5. Great post Christie! And yes, still brace yourself for rejection...

  6. Very interesting post. Thanks Christie. I need to figure out how to study the books I like withouth getting caught up in the story.

  7. Michelle and Julie, yes still expect rejection.

    Melissa, read my post on How to Study, Analyze, or Dissect a Picture Book. Of course, if you don't get caught up in the story the first time around, then it's not worth studying the second time around.

  8. I've heard this sort of statistic too and it's actually reassuring.

    I'm popping over from the Rach's blog building Crusade. It's nice to meet you.

  9. Thanks for the tips, Christie!

    I read a ton of picture books, but lately I've been limiting myself to books published within the last 5 years - preferably, in the last year or two. I don't want to internalize cadences and techniques that are no longer publishable. (Of course, I am limiting my education, but I will most likely read them all at some point!)

  10. Nice post, Christie. I agree with Heather--look at PBs published only within the last year or two. That means they were bought anywhere from two to six years ago (and maybe even more). Look any further back and that's not necessarily what's being bought anymore. Right now, shorter manuscripts are being favored (500 to 700 words for the 4-8 year-old range). You also want to avoid the first-time writer pitfall of writing about a common theme--a new baby in the family, the first day of school, an ABC book, a didactic tale, etc. The slush pile is filled with those types of stories, plus they've already been done dozens of times, and done well. You want to write something new and fresh. I like the phrase "Think of the hook before you write the book."

  11. Jenny, Welcome aboard the crusade. I couldn't find the link to your blog, or it's locked as private.

    Heather and Tara, So true about the overdone common themes. Funny thing is, I never liked those books to begin with. I like dreamy lyrical books, or fun and humorous books. Thanks for adding to the discussion. I only touched on a few main points. Themes in PB's could be another separate post all together.

  12. Thanks for your work on picture books - as a preschool teacher of ELL students I am very particular about books that tell story through their illustrations. I look forward to checking back over your recommendations.

  13. Really great post Christie! This is some good advice for staying focused on the goal by doing consistent steps that will definitely pay off if you stick with them. I'm so glad you mentioned grammar as one of the steps. In today's texting, shorthand Twitter world, I'm seeing too much slacking going on with that, even with professionals!


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